The Arrival

arrivalThis wordless graphic novel by Shaun Tan presents a familiar immigrant tale, but the presentation makes it unfamiliar. It begins with a man leaving his wife and daughter in a city where some sort of danger lurks. He crosses the ocean, stands in a line, gets some papers, and wanders an entirely alien city looking for housing, a job, friends. And, gradually, he makes a home for his family.

When I say the city is alien, I mean it. The images show a place that looks little like our world. Odd little (and big) animals roam the streets and buildings. (See, for example, the little critter on the cover.) Many of the buildings are shaped like cones, and the language uses symbols unfamiliar both to us as readers and to the main characters.

Arrival FantasyThis unfamiliarity allows readers to experience the strangeness of this new world right along with the main character. We’d be just as likely as he was to put posters on the wall upside down, as he does in his first job in the new city. And we’d be just as puzzled as he is by some of the instruments used for daily life. We learn the rules along with him, also without the benefit of knowing the language. It’s interesting that one of the clearest communications he makes in his new home is a simple sketch of a bed—images become a shared language when written and spoken language fail.

Arrival ImageThe fact that this is a fantasy world helps universalize the story, making it applicable to immigrants to and from many different nations. Although Tan models some of his drawings on existing images, including photographs from Ellis Island, he draws inspiration from stories of immigrants from all over the world, including his father, who immigrated to Australia from Malaysia. The drawings at the front and back of the book show people of many different ages and nationalities. By taking the story out of our world, Tan allows it to speak to all of our world.

Posted in Fiction, Graphic Novels / Comics, Speculative Fiction | 2 Comments

Mr. Splitfoot

Mr SplitfootThis novel by Samantha Hunt has a lot of the ingredients that make up a perfect novel for me. There are two young women, each of a different generation, trying to figure out how to tackle adulthood. There’s a loopy dual-timeline plot: the present-day plot in which Cora, single and pregnant, follows her aunt Ruth on a long walking journey and the past plot in which Ruth is a young woman in a foster home/cult who’s finding her way out by running a scam involving speaking to the dead. There are hints of the supernatural. And none of it quite makes sense until the end.

All of this could work, but it didn’t quite add up for me.

I can probably lay the blame in part on my expectations and my mood. For some reason, I thought this was set further back in the past, leading me to look forward to something like Affinity by Sarah Waters. It’s not like that at all. And I was feeling easily distracted all week, so I may not have sunk into this book as well as I could have at other times.

Still, I think the book has some problems. The main one being the characters. They’re too bland. I never felt a strong reason to care about them. Instead of having strong personalities and voices, they felt like blank slates that events were written on. Most of what we know about Cora and Ruth is what happens to them. Their responses to those events are either absolutely ordinary and predictable or inexplicable to the point of being bizarre.

Cora decides to carry on with her pregnancy despite her married boyfriend’s objections. (The boyfriend, Lord, acts on his objections in one of the most horrifying scenes in the book, but then he’s dropped entirely from the story. That name and his shocking act seemed too portentous to disappear.) So far, none of Cora’s actions seem strange. But then she follows her aunt Ruth, a silent woman who is little more than a stranger Cora has fantasized about, on a months-long walking journey. For no reason other than curiosity, slight discontent, and fear of the future. For months. While pregnant. And Ruth never says a single word.

Ruth is slightly more interesting, but I think it’s more that the events around her are more dramatic. Her relationship with her foster sister, a boy named Nat, starts out feeling like it has potential. The idea that they’re sisters despite Nat’s being a boy is interesting but never goes anywhere much. And there’s a romance that appears out of the blue toward the end, seemingly to move the plot along, not because the seeds were planted from the start.

I’m also tired of religious cult stories where the cults don’t make sense. The multiple religious communities in this book are such a hodge-podge of ideas. Some of that is intentional. One of the leaders just picked up ideas as he came across them, and the other was an obvious hypocrite. But the former theology student in me likes to at least see an attempt at creating a systematic theology for a fictional cults.

I was surprised to find myself as down on this book as I am, and it is certainly possible that expectations did me in. But I think this might be the kind of book that works only if you sink into it and enjoy the ride without examining the details much. I can and have enjoyed many books like that, and I always feel a bit let down when I see reviews complaining about the book’s lack of logic. But when you can’t get immersed in the world of a book like this, the niggling issues become glaring problems that build. That’s what happened here. And the result is disappointment.

Posted in Fiction | 6 Comments

A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again

a supposedly fun thingLast year at about this time, I read Consider the Lobster. It was my first encounter with David Foster Wallace’s writing, and I discovered with surprise and pleasure that he writes absolutely incredible, delightful, kick-ass essays. Why surprise? Well, I admit I entered into the project a little bit skeptical. Wallace is one of these uber-hyped Gen-X white-dude heroes, and everyone was doing Infinite Jest at the time, and I sort of thought maybe he was overblown and might not be any good. To my joy, I found that he’s way better than good. His essays are dazzling, yes — his language, his wit, and his play with form are all brilliant and sparkling. But he’s serious, too. Each essay goes beyond the razzle to touch something deep about the human project; each burst of fireworks illuminates something we might not otherwise have seen.

This time, I read A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, and just got totally fantastically blown flat once again by Wallace’s writing. One of the things Wallace does is to write about things that might not seem important at first glance, and then make them important by the way he writes about them. If you’d asked me if I wanted to read a 55-page essay about the Illinois State Fair, I don’t think it would have been very high on my list. But reading “Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All” is equal parts entertaining, enlightening, bemusing, and fascinating. Wallace walks through the fair as an insider (he grew up in Illinois) and an outsider (he hasn’t lived in the Midwest for a long time), analyzing the phenomenon of the hot, crowded fair-as-fun at the same time as he participates in it. (A couple of pages of this essay where he watches a baton-twirling contest is one of the funniest things I’ve read in a long time.) The essay is both cultural anthropology and personal anecdote, and it’s vital and great.

The title essay is nearly 100 pages of Wallace’s experience of a 7-night luxury cruise in the Caribbean. The essay starts out innocently enough as a record of the cruise, but it morphs into an extended reflection on free will, mortality, despair, and the role of luxury in helping us forget our impending death. (It’s also, like the essay on the State Fair, extremely funny.) At what point, asks Wallace, does the kind of frenetic pampering you receive on a luxury cruise become a burden? When do we realize that the company isn’t doing it for us, but because they want something from us, like the Service Smile we get from retail people? What happens when we have to re-enter the normal, non-luxury world, with our guards up to true goodwill and genuine smiles? (What happens when Wallace discovers a nine-year-old girl can beat him at chess?)

I could go on. Each of these essays is a gem: personal, serious, dazzling, deep. I have no real interest in tennis, but there are two essays about it in this book that had me riveted and wanting to read more, because they say so much about life in an odd corner of fairly extreme human behavior. Wallace’s essay about television and modern fiction had me saddened that he’s not still writing, because I wanted to see what he thinks about the current television/literary scene instead of the one he was looking at in the 1990s. His essay about David Lynch made me want to watch all of David Lynch’s oeuvre, and really, nobody should watch all of David Lynch. My only regret about this book is that there aren’t more essays in it — and now I have only one collection of Wallace’s nonfiction left to read (Both Flesh and Not.) If you’ve been thinking about trying David Foster Wallace, let me highly recommend this book or Consider the Lobster — such deeply satisfying essays would be perfect to adorn your nightstand this summer.

Posted in Nonfiction, Short Stories/Essays | 5 Comments

The Little Paris Bookshop

little paris bookshopI have a grudge against this book. It looks on the surface (and I do mean the surface, as in the cover) as if it’s going to be a nice book: it’s about a bookseller in Paris, and it’s clearly a romance. What could be so awful? Instead, it is the worst book I’ve read in years. The WORST. Manipulative, saccharine, ghastly, embarrassing. (Before you ask, I finished it because I felt I had to: I was reading it for a book club in which we don’t just socialize, we spend two hours analyzing the book itself. The hours I spent reading it are hours I spent withering away, whispering “Oh God, oh God” to myself.)

The premise of Nina George’s novel is that the (heavily-named) Jean Perdu owns a bookshop on a barge in Paris, called the Literary Apothecary. From this barge, he dispenses literary prescriptions for the malaises his customers bring him, something he can do because he is extremely sensitive and empathic. But… he cannot heal his own terrible pain, left over from when his lover (whom he thinks of only as “______”) left him twenty years ago. Suddenly, new light falls on the situation when his new and beautiful neighbor Catherine finds an unopened letter from ________ in his kitchen table drawer. (It’s a Dear John letter, or I guess a Cher Jean letter.) This revelation causes him to unmoor his barge and go on a trip to the south of France with an equally-suffering customer, Max Jordan, so the two of them can try to heal their pain and find out what truly happened in the past so they can live in the Now (capitalized, I swear it.)

How did I hate it? Let me count the ways (and, I suppose I should warn you, I won’t worry about giving away plot points):

  1. The prose and characterization are horrible. Horrible! Each character is precious, twee, and overwrought. Every one of Jean Perdu’s neighbors has a quirk: an agoraphobic pianist, a blind chiropodist, a leatherworker from Ghana who puts symbols on his work “that no one in the building could understand,” a cougar with rooms full of high heels. Please, please, please, no more! The ship cannae take another quirk, Captain!
  2. The generalizations! I didn’t think people wrote books like this any more. Women are like this, men are like that. (From a random page: “Instead of whispering instructions to them, like you would to a horse — lie down, woman, put your harness on — you should listen to them. Listen to what they want. In fact, they want to be free and to sail across the sky.” Gah!) People from the north of France are frigid and have no emotions, people from the south are fiery and live according to their bodies’ desires. People from cities are cold and precise, people from the country are rustic and intelligent with the land’s deep intelligence… oh geez. There was a long, profoundly embarrassing scene about dancing the tango that I’ll spare you. It had nothing to do with the plot, just an excuse for more revolting talk about not thinking too much. Believe me, nobody was thinking too much in this book.
  3. The unbelievably banal observations about life. Did this author get her insights from a Facebook meme? After “hurting time” and “healing time,” we arrive at insights like “You really only regret the things you didn’t do” and “Children want to please their parents” and “I am a man… again.” (Ellipsis part of the quotation. Nina George loves ellipses.)
  4. There is an actual Manic Pixie Dream Girl, whose first appearance is to fall backward into a river in a huge storm and need to be rescued. She serves no other purpose but to assist the two men in their emotional development, such as it was. She did, however, send me tipping over the brink from disgust into hysterical laughter, which was welcome, with this line, meant (I believe) to be a romantic description of her closeness to nature: “Her laugh was like the honking of a flying crane, Jean thought.” I beg you, I implore you, to click here and find out what that laugh actually sounds like.
  5. Jean Perdu’s former lover is a free spirit. She wants to have more than one man: one she marries and one she loves in Paris. This desire is treated as if she is the first person who ever thought of it, despite the fact that I’m guessing Jean has probably got to have a copy of Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, or Effi Briest somewhere on those shelves. She is racked with guilt (despite the fact that it’s just! who! she! is! and she’s extremely! sexual!) and eventually the novel properly punishes her by killing her off — and not just killing her off, but sacrificing all her life force to her (presumably pure) baby daughter. Awesome. Great. Gag me with a spoon.
  6. Oh, and the wretched, embarrassing sex scenes. I honestly couldn’t believe this. This book is so precious, so twee, so flowery, and then it springs these incredibly awful sex scenes on you where Jean “runs howling and naked” up and down the beach, or they have sex right after they’ve been riding horses naked (and this is super explicit), and Nina George uses words you would not expect for this kind of book, let’s just put it that way. It was so god-awful. I don’t feel I should even have to say that I don’t mind sex in books. But this was horrifying. I think I’m scarred. Hold me.
  7. The book is manipulative in the worst possible way, intended to be a tear-jerker (no such luck with me), predictable in every possible corner of the plot. There is no trope left unborrowed, no currently-popular image left unransacked. There is nothing in this book that could possibly make you uncomfortable or make you think about something you’d never thought about before. (Unless you’ve never heard a crane laugh.)

Was there anything redeeming about this book? No. In my opinion, it was like eating wet cardboard with the occasional vile gritty bit. However, I will observe that it was apparently a best-seller in Germany, Italy, Poland, and the Netherlands, and that there is no accounting for taste, so there’s a chance you’ll like it, or liked it already. No judgment here! Everyone likes different things! But I strongly recommend you try something else, because I love you all and I want to spare you pain.

Posted in Fiction | 44 Comments

Red Lights

Red LightsIt’s Labor Day weekend in the 1950s, and the highways from New York to Maine are clogged with couples and families heading north. Steve and Nancy Hogan are going to Maine to pick up their children from a summer-long camp. Steve is unhappily “going into the tunnel,” a private phrase he uses to describe a state he can’t properly explain but that basically means drinking too much but (in his mind) not getting properly drunk.

Red Lights by Georges Simenon and translated by  Norman Denny was first published in 1953, and it feels of its time in some respects. The amount of drinking Steve does while on the road is startling, and hardly anyone, aside from Nancy, expresses concern that he’s not fit to drive. And then there’s the Hogan marriage, which seems ahead of its time. Far from being a prototypical 1950s housewife, Nancy works outside the home so that the family can earn enough to live in Long Island. Her career is more successful than Steve’s, and it’s not unusual for her to work late nights and leave him with most of the child care duties.

The state of the Hogan marriage is at the center of this often troubling book. Steve resents his wife’s success, seeing it as a threat to his own masculinity. His drinking appears to be a way of showing off his manliness, even though it really shows off his weakness. He drinks rye even though he hates it because it’s a strong drink.

Steve’s drinking and discontentment lead him and Nancy to quarrel on the road, and she eventually threatens to leave him behind and drive up by herself if he stops at yet another bar. He stops–and takes the keys. When he comes back to the car, Nancy has left a note saying that she’s taking the bus. Steve spends the night wandering the highway (because he won’t ask for directions or get a map) and picks up an escaped convict. The next morning, he’s got a flat tire, his clothes and wallet are stolen, and he has no way to find his wife. When he does, he learns how his irresponsibility and insecurities brought suffering to her.

So we have here a book in which a woman’s suffering brings enlightenment or some such thing to a man. It’s a frustrating kind of story because men should know better. As I read this, I thought of Other Jenny’s recent post about The Association of Small Bombs and narratives that ask us to understand male violence. While Steve is not violent toward Nancy, the violence against her is, it is implied, an acting out of Steve’s own fantasies. He doesn’t quite ask her to be attacked, but he provides justifications for it. And the man who commits the act is presented as a sort of double for Steve, the man he wishes he could be. It is only when his masculinity is reclaimed through this double that he’s able to see how toxic it is.

The ending of the book leaves us with Steve, chastened and determined to do better. He’ll do what needs to be done for his wife, but there’s an unsettling sense that he enjoys the fact that she’s been broken down so that he can take charge. Yet the final line makes it clear that Nancy is the real hero, even if Steve still frames what happens as his tragedy. He’s still focused on what it means for him, and Nancy’s strength is not her own thing but a source he can draw on to be strong himself. It’s an interesting undermining of the lessons Steve believes he has learned, and it shows how far he still has to go.


Posted in Classics, Fiction, Mysteries | 6 Comments

Life After Life

life after lifeSnow. 11 February 1910, and Ursula Todd is born.

No breath. All the world come down to this. One breath.

Little lungs, like dragonfly wings failing to inflate in the foreign atmosphere. No wind in the strangled pipe. The buzzing of a thousand bees in the tiny curled pearl of an ear.

Panic. The drowning girl, the falling bird.

Her life is over before it begins, her umbilical cord wrapped around her neck, her doctor stuck in the snow. That’s that.

Turn the page.

Snow. 11 February, 1910, and Ursula Todd is born again. This time, Dr. Fellowes arrives before the snow closes the roads, and is able to snip the strangling umbilical cord. Ursula draws breath, a healthy baby girl, daughter of Hugh and Sylvie Todd. When she’s five, Ursula’s sister Pammy takes her out beyond her depth at the seaside.

No one came. And there was only water. Water and more water. Her helpless little heart was beating wildly, a bird trapped in her chest. A thousand bees buzzed in the curled pearl of her ear. No breath. A drowning child, a bird dropped from the sky.

Darkness fell.

Turn the page.

Snow. 11 February, 1910. And so on.

Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson, follows Ursula Todd through one of her lives after another. Some of them are only moments long; some of them last for decades before they come to an end and begin again in snow. After a while, Ursula begins to develop a sense of deja vu about the things that affect her most negatively, and to have a sort of existential dread that forces her to change the outcome of her life: to take another, safer path back from berry-picking, for instance, or to find some way to make her maid stay home from Armistice-Day celebrating. She learns not to talk about these feelings. It only worries her family. (Her family is one of the great things about this book: her gloomy mother Sylvie, father Hugh, awful brother Maurice, glorious brother Teddy, loyal sister Pammy, more or less themselves life after life.)

One big thing Atkinson is doing in this novel, of course, is playing with the idea of what it would be like to be able to do things again, differently, perhaps right this time. What would happen if we chose different friends, or a different education, or if a parent or a sibling died, or if we had saved money instead of traveling? In one long section, Ursula is the victim of a rape, and the consequences reel out in her life with the dismaying not-quite-predictability of disempowerment and despair. In the next life, a hearty slap discourages the rapist before he even gets close, and things turn out very differently: Ursula takes her power back, life is worth living again. (What a thing it is to be rooting for your protagonist to die, so that she can live.)

Another thing that Atkinson is doing wonderfully, cleverly, in this book is playing with form. Obviously this isn’t a linear plot: instead, it loops back, to the beginning, and back again, and then back to when Ursula is five, and then back, several times, to when she’s seven, and then… Atkinson plays with the reader’s expectation that these loops are spiraling upward, to something better, perhaps to a climactic event that will stop the loops altogether, a la Groundhog Day. This expectation is tantalizingly set by the book’s prologue, December 1930, in which Ursula fires a gun at someone she calls Fuhrer. Is this it? Is this the purpose of all these lives, the thing she’s trying to get right, the reason she’s gone through so many iterations of being?

But this book is far more emotionally subtle than that. All these choices, all these variations on life, are not about the world events Ursula lives through and her effect on them (Armistice, the Blitz, VE Day.) Instead, they are about the effects of life on life after life: how individual people live in often-dire circumstances, how they choose when their choices make a difference. The looping is not an upward spiral, ready to become linear when Ursula achieves a set piece, but a fugue, played for the beauty of it, the triumph, the sadness, the courage.

I’ve been reading Kate Atkinson’s work for a long time — her delicious novels about weird families, like Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet, as well as her chaos-theory Jackson Brodie detective novels — and Life After Life was just so good. Novels that can do something clever and interesting with form and also tell me something real about people are a total treat, and this book was wonderful, wonderful.


Posted in Fiction | 11 Comments

The Girls

The GirlsEmma Cline’s debut novel has been poised to be the “it” book of the summer. But is it any good?

Much of the buzz I heard about The Girls focused on its fictionalization of the Manson murders. But this book is less “Helter Skelter” and more “She’s Leaving Home.”

The book’s narrator, Evie Boyd, is a middle-aged woman looking back on the summer when she was 14, confused and lonely and intensely curious about sex and adulthood but lacking any guidance from parents. And so after living “alone” for so many years, Evie takes up with a young woman named Suzanne. The disheveled and seemingly independent Suzanne fascinates Evie from the start: “She seemed as strange and raw as those flowers that bloom in lurid explosion once every five years, the gaudy, prickling tease that was almost the same thing as beauty.” And so Evie follows Suzanne to Russell and the community of hippies formed around him, looking for a new way of living.

The first chapters of the book, where Evie is in stasis, trying to figure herself out, are slow and don’t offer much that seemed original to me. The writing is sometimes nice, and sometimes overworked. The line quoted above is a typical example–evocative, but drawing too much attention to itself. The story improves as Evie joins Russell’s community and tries to understand that world and figure out her place in it.

In a way, Russell’s community, as dysfunctional as it is, is a microcosm of the larger world. Evie finds herself going along with rules that don’t make sense, and ends up committed to people who don’t necessarily care about her. She’s glad for the attention and the chance to identify herself as something special, so she doesn’t see that she’s just being who she’s told to be.

Much of the attention that Evie receives and gives is sexual, and it appears that it’s the only language women around her really have. In fact, the framing device of Evie talking to young relatives of a friend shows the same drama playing out, as a young woman accepts intolerable circumstances for sexual attention, the only attention she gets. It’s only when Evie is able to spend time with a woman who is in a relationship but also herself, ready to walk away, that she’s able to see the disorder and degradation she’s living in. But even then, she can’t quite walk away on her own.

As for the Manson-esque murders, they’re not the focus on the book, and I wonder if the book would be better without the specter of the murders looming. What role do the murders play in the narrative? Are they meant to show female fury unleashed? I don’t buy that, not when the women are acting at a man’s behest against people who’ve done nothing to them. Perhaps it’s women’s frustration and powerless lashing out. Or maybe the role of the murders is merely to build tension, which seems a little cheap to me. But cheap or not, wondering how they’d play out kept me reading, so if that was the intent, it worked.

As for my initial question of whether this book is good, it is. I’m not sorry I read it. But I’m not convinced it’s an “it” book with staying power.

I received an e-galley of this book for review consideration via Netgalley.

Posted in Fiction | 13 Comments

A Rule Against Murder

rule against murderThe fourth book in Louise Penny’s series of mysteries starring Chief Inspector Armand Gamache takes place (for once) away from the cozy village of Three Pines. (Three Pines suffers a little from Cabot Cove/ Midsomer/ St Mary Mead Syndrome, where a small village has way more than its fair share of brutal murders.) This time, the Inspector and his wife, Reine-Marie, are on vacation, celebrating their wedding anniversary at Québec’s top auberge, Manoir Bellechasse. The luxurious inn, normally a peaceful haven for its young staff as well as for its happy guests, is troubled this summer: it’s the site of a family reunion for the Finney family. Is it enough to say the Finneys are dysfunctional? Perhaps not. They are spiteful, malicious, unkind, secretive, manipulative, snobbish, and champions at holding grudges. Hooray for family reunions! So perhaps it is not as much of a surprise as it could be when a member of the family winds up dead: it is really only the method of the murder that raises any eyebrows. (Crushed by a huge marble statue, rather as in the prologue to Masterpiece Mystery.)

The ins and outs of the Finney family history are tortuous enough for Gamache and his helpers, Beauvoir and Lacoste, to investigate, let alone the mysterious past of the staff. Complicating the situation still further is that Gamache’s friends from Three Pines, Peter and Clara Morrow, are part of the family — and family pressures and dynamics are causing them to revert to type, so that instead of being the warm and loving couple Gamache knows, they are prickly, resentful, and cutting. The Finneys also know something dark in Gamache’s own private history, and are willing to use it to their advantage if they possibly can. Gamache works against time in the hot summer air to find the murderer among this group of tightly-wound, angry people.

I thought this mystery was significantly weaker than the first three I’ve read by Penny. Perhaps it’s the setting — a locked-room mystery of sorts, with its isolated auberge — or the missing interwoven characters from Three Pines, since those are familiar old friends. Whatever it was, the mystery felt oddly shallow to me this time, more a conglomeration of unpleasant people than a real tangle of motivations and histories. This book has a lot of the hallmarks of Penny’s writing, such as loving descriptions of luxurious food and drink about every three pages, and oddly choppy paragraphs (she really likes the one-sentence paragraph!) These sorts of things, however, I can ignore or even enjoy when the mystery and characters are satisfying. Gamache himself still stands out as a great inspector, though even here, in A Rule Against Murder, Penny spends a lot of time telling us he’s good, telling us he walks into the darkness past logic, rather than letting that show. For those of you who have read this series — is this a blip? How do you like the rest of the books?

Posted in Fiction, Mysteries | 4 Comments

The Pleasure Seekers

Pleasure SeekersBabu Patel came to London as a young man in 1968. His plan was to take classes in the evening while working for a cement importer during the day. The classes and practical experience would prepare him to help his father in his paint business back in India, where he would return and marry Falguni, his approved sweetheart back home. All that changed when Babu met Siân. Originally from a village in Wales, Siân was in London to pursue a new life. She and Babu immediately fell in love, and their love persists despite Babu’s parents’ schemes to keep them apart.

The first part of this novel by Tishani Doshi, which traces Babu and Siân’s romance, is gorgeous. A poet before writing this novel, Doshi’s language captures the beauty and chaos of first love. The pair feel right only with each other, but they’re smart enough to be afraid of their feelings, even when they can’t give them up. Here, for instance, is Siân’s thinking as she tells her parents about her plan to move to India to be with Babu:

What was she going to say to them this time? That she’d be back after two years? That she was going to marry a man she’d known for six months? A man whose family had tricked him into going home and were none too pleased about Siân’s existence on the planet. A man she couldn’t imagine living without, but with whom she hadn’t been able to share her fears. She hadn’t told him, for instance, that she got jolted out of bed some nights, as though a charge of electricity were being passed through her– thinking what if, what if it is all a terrible mistake? What if she went to him and regretted everything? What if he tried to show her his life and she just couldn’t see it? What if there came a day when she no longer lived inside of him, and she had to return, and there was no place to return to? Wouldn’t it be awful to be saddled together? To have made such a hue and cry, only to let it go? And were they both too proud anyway, to allow people their sanctimonious we-told-you-sos: We knew it wouldn’t work out in the end. Life chalk and cheese. No chance of that lasting.

If the story had continued along its early trajectory, or if it had been a novella made up of only the first section of the book, I’d be sinking its praises without much reservation. I thoroughly enjoyed the early chapters. But as the book moves into Babu and Siân’s married life, it loses both momentum and focus, attempting to become a multi-generational family epic but lacking the level of detail that makes such epics compelling.

The final two-thirds of the book deal with the Patel family’s life in India and, later, Babu and Siân’s daughter Bean’s life in England. There are some good moments, but the book loses its focus on the couple who drove the story in the first place. They appear almost entirely on the edges of the story. That might be okay if the narrative had shifted entirely to the lives of their two daughters, but whole chapters are devoted to members of the extended family that we were given little reason to care about (and some reason to dislike) in the early part of the book. There’s also not much of a narrative through line, like a romance, to keep the pages turning. Frankly, I lost interest.

The story picks up a bit when Bean goes to England, but it never quite returns to form. In addition, it’s in this section that I noticed Doshi’s tendency to hide pivotal moments in between chapters. We learn of a pregnancy when morning sickness is mentioned, almost as an aside. This is especially frustrating in a book that is so committed to detailing characters’ inner lives, and the previous character had been agonizing over a major decision in which her pregnancy would have been a factor. It’s a piece of authorial withholding that seems to exist only for shock value. That would bother me less in a thriller, but a book about people’s inner lives needs to be more transparent about what’s happening in those inner lives.

Published in 2010 and longlisted for the Orange Prize, this is Doshi’s only novel so far, although she has written a couple of volumes of poetry and a collection of poems, stories, and essays. I think she may be a writer whose talents are best suited to shorter forms. The problem with this book is not with the sentences or the characters but with the plotting, which doesn’t stand up over the long haul.

Posted in Fiction | 4 Comments

The Rook

rookDear You, 

The body you are wearing used to be mine.

Thus begins the letter Myfanwy Thomas finds in her pocket when she opens her eyes in the pouring rain one London night, dead bodies wearing latex gloves all around her, and no idea whatsoever of who she is. The letter contains a few urgent instructions and details (including her name), ID, and credit and ATM cards, so Myfanwy can take her bruised and battered body to a hotel for the night. (She has no memory of getting those injuries.) In the morning she must make a choice: escape and live anonymously with a pleasant amount of wealth under the name Anne Ryan, or go back to this other person’s astonishing life so she can find out who betrayed her and tried to kill her. Just as she’s reaching for Anne Ryan’s identification, a second attack in the bank vault — and its strange outcome — change her mind. She will be Myfanwy Thomas as long as it takes to understand what has happened here.

The Rook, by Daniel O’Malley, is a puzzle based on Myfanwy’s total amnesia, a little like The Bourne Identity. The original Myfanwy Thomas received several warnings from psychics (including an oracular duck) that she was going to be betrayed and would lose her memory, so she prepared for this outcome, leaving her successor dozens of letters explaining her life and enabling her to put the pieces together. The new Myfanwy is thus racing against time to settle into this life and find out who the traitor is so that she won’t be betrayed again and this time murdered. And what a life it is!

Myfanwy discovers that her position is a Rook in the Chequy, a secret organization that has existed for centuries to serve the British Isles as a protection against the supernatural. This organization is very hierarchical and based (as you can probably tell) on a chessboard, with a Lord and Lady, two Bishops, two Chevaliers, two Rooks, and a number of Pawns. The Chequy has the right to take “gifted” children from their homes to a training ground called the Estate, where they are crafted into well-rounded warriors who can put their powers to use. (This is a bit X-Men in flavor.) Anyone in the Court must have these special powers: Lady Farrier, for instance, can see other people’s dreams; Bishop Alrich is a vampire. And Myfanwy? She has the ability to control other people’s nervous systems: she can do anything from locking another person’s joints, to blinding or incapacitating them, to killing them.

Myfanwy does her best to drop back into a life she knows nothing about without making any mistakes or raising any eyebrows. And in fact, thanks to her superb assistant, Ingrid, and the many letters from the Former Myfanwy, she does remarkably well. She even finds that she likes the job, can be assertive, and has a head for fieldwork that the Former Myfanwy didn’t. But the pressure mounts as she begins to narrow down the number of people who could be out to kill her, and as a deadly danger begins to rise from the outside as well: the Grafters, an organization similar to the Chequy but who install powers through surgery rather than taking them from the natural population.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It’s got some wonderful heroines in it — both Myfanwys have terrific and distinct personalities, and he pulls it off flawlessly. The lesser characters are also very enjoyable. I especially liked Myfanwy’s American counterpart, Shantay, who can grow armor. The book is frequently very witty, with little side-glances to other fantasy worlds or strange happenings that made me chuckle. For instance, the American version of the Chequy is called the Croatoan. And then there was this:

“If you want to switch jobs, you can come over here right now and balance the extermination budget in London while (shuffling through papers) figuring out why the hell a two-door wardrobe in the spare room of a country house is considered to be a matter of national concern!”

There are a lot of action set pieces, and O’Malley never lets the plot stop rolling along. Could the book, at nearly 500 pages, have been shorter? Yes, yes it could. I think 500 pages for a fantasy romp, even one with a good plot, is a lot, and could have been tightened by easily 100-150 pages (and I have some specific suggestions.) But still! I enjoyed the entire thing. And! I just happened to pick this up the very month the sequel, Stiletto, is coming out! Lucky me! And lucky you, if you read this: it’s pure fun, perfect for the summer.rook

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 13 Comments